Can Performance Clothing Break Out of the Gym and Into the Corner Office?

June 23, 2016, 12:01 PM UTC
Ministry of Supply

To find success as a startup, it helps to pay attention to shifts in the way we live. A concept can be compelling, but if it’s too far outside the realm of the average person’s day-to-day, it’s not going to fly. Remember Webvan? The company’s goal — to deliver groceries to people’s doors via the Internet — was solid, but its timing wasn’t. In 1999, it went public; in 2001 it went bankrupt. Fifteen years later, online grocery delivery is flourishing on the back of a smartphone-enabled, on-demand economy. The timing is right.

And the necessary stars are aligning for another shift. At least, that’s what Aman Advani is betting on. As CEO and co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a Boston-based men’s clothing startup, he believes high-performance clothing made for the office is the next big thing as the line between people’s work lives and personal lives has all but disappeared.

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His theory: Consumers want the same performance from their office wear as they do their workout wear. Athleisure — a growing trend in which people wear sports clothes outside the gym — is simply a hacker’s solution. If true, people will embrace what Ministry of Supply is selling: a businesscasual wardrobe complete with button-ups, chinos, dress socks and more that provides the same durability, comfort and performance as traditional workout clothes. The basic idea is clothing that it looks like J.Crew, but performs like Nike (NKE). (In the footwear world, this has been a focus for years: Cole Haan, when it was owned by Nike, used to incorporate the sneaker brand’s athletic technology into its dress shoes. Today, it continues the tradition with items such as this oxford shoe with a sneaker-like sole.)

To continue to test this hypothesis, Ministry of Supply has just raised $3 million in venture funding to in a round led by Tony Hsieh’s VTF Capital, Eric Friedman and Japanese soccer star Keisuke Honda. Founded on Kickstarter in 2012, the company has raised $9 million total. Much of the latest raise will go to adding new brick-and-mortar stores to its existing three in San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

Around 90% of the company’s sales are domestic, but Honda’s involvement opens up a potential new market. “Japan is a culture that cares about style and values technology’s role in elevating style,” says Advani. It was this blend of style and functionality that convinced him to invest, Honda says.

That said, Ministry of Supply will likely live or die on its ability to convince American professionals that they want — and are willing to pay for — business-casual clothes equipped with laser cut ventilation zones, NASA temperature-regulating technology and moisture-wicking woven fabric. Button-downs range from $95 to $145, while jackets top out at $450.

Ironically, a large part of this may be focusing less on the above features and more on the brand’s conventional business-casual style. Early on, “we used to push the high-tech messaging,” says Advani. The strategy has attracted earlier adopters, but doesn’t necessarily resonate with mainstream bankers, consultants and other professionals. For many of these guys, Advani admits, trumpeting high-tech features may even be a turn-off (too geeky.) The goal now is to make clothes that emulate J. Crew, i.e. “provide a uniform — simplicity and intentionality without thought,” says Advani. Once that’s established, the clothes’ capabilities — from stain-resistance to extra stretch — can transition from primary selling point to a competitive advantage.

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Ministry of Supply isn’t the only company betting that as our workdays extend beyond eight hours and bleed into our personal lives, we’ll demand more from our clothing. Lululemon is experimenting with higher-end, athleisure-inspired options, as are startups such as Outlier, Qor and Kit & Ace, which specializes in machine-washable cashmere. Meanwhile, more traditional players including Brooks Brothers, which has experimented with wrinkle-resistant clothing, and Ralph Lauren are “dipping their toes” into the space, says Advani.

But despite shifts in how we work and dress, the public’s interest in performance professional wear is largely unproven. A professor at Harvard Business School features Ministry of Supply as a case study in one of her classes. The topic? Category creation. Whole Foods (corporate organics) and Sundance (the independent film scene) are studied as examples of organizations that have done this successfully.

“Our case is called, Ministry of Supply: Will Professionals Demand Performance?” says Advani. “It’s open-ended — it invites itself to scrutiny.”

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